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About Boys' Schools: A Progressive Case for an Ancient Form

by Richard A. Hawley - 1991

Defends the value of boys' schools, noting lack of objective data to support a negative appraisal of them. There is an inherent maleness that cannot be alienated from boys and men without a fundamental loss of their humanity. Schools must take the responsibility for conveying how to become a man. (Source: ERIC)


On trial for his very life, Socrates began his defense by pointing out to the citizens of Athens that it was not really he who stood accused of impiety and of corrupting the city’s youth, but rather a vague yet nonetheless popular image of Socrates. The image had been created by his most vocal critics and enemies and was given wide currency in an uproarious stage comedy, The Clouds, written by his friend Aristophanes. Socrates was not at all confident that he could assert his reality—and, he believed, his innocence—in the face of such a widespread adherence to an image he himself had never cultivated. His concerns proved to be justified; the image was found guilty, and the man was duly executed.

A similar difficulty tends these days to distort discussions of all-male schools. Contemporary opinion and more than a century’s compelling fictions about boys’ schools have combined to shroud them in a vaguely dinosaurian aura. Many of the surviving boys’ schools are old and steeped in tradition, and this oldness carries- with it unexamined negative feelings. Whereas enduring unto oldness often enhances the regard in which institutions or practices are held, the oldness of boys’ schools tends, in the popular mind, to make them reactionary, “old-fashioned” in the most pejorative sense. Boys’ schools, it is said, hark back to the days when only boys were prepared for universities and for the professions; as such they have been a principal instrument of male domination. To which it might be added: Shame on them and good riddance.

This image of the boys’ school as a cultural dinosaur does not, I believe, stand up to objective analysis. Boys’ schools of former eras may well have maintained attitudes that today might deservedly be called “sexist” or oppressive, but identical attitudes were also maintained by those eras’ boys and girls whether enrolled in coed schools, girls’ schools, or no school at all.

It will be argued here that there are no objective data of any kind to support a negative appraisal of boys’ schools qua boys’ schools. The data suggest, if anything, the opposite conclusion. Objective data did not motivate hundreds of colleges and schools to convert from single-sex to coeducational student bodies over the past three decades. The great majority of coeducational conversions were driven by market considerations: Coed schools were believed to attract more, including more qualified, applicants. For some schools on the brink of conversion, the motivating factor was a conviction—largely unexamined—that a coed student body is somehow more egalitarian. Stated simply, the assumption was that boys and girls together in school will be better people than they would be if segregated; they will be more understanding of, and effective with, each other. If that assumption is demonstrably true, schooling boys and girls together is clearly desirable. But is it true? A perhaps more important, and certainly more irritating, question is whether the current climate of opinion will allow anybody to find out.

Might there be inherently good, developmentally necessary qualities distinctive to all-boys’ schools? That it is now possible to pose this reasonable question to the general public is due in good measure to the rising tide of feminist educational thinking. In their conviction that there truly are innately feminine modes of experience and feminine structures of thought, certain feminist theorists argue that those qualities will be nurtured and exercised best in all-girls’ educational settings. The more pervasive the male domination of the larger culture, the more necessary it is to educate girls separately. Structuring schools so that they realize what is deepest and truest and best in females is currently regarded as a progressive educational attitude. Structuring schools so that they realize what is deepest and truest and best in males is not currently regarded as a progressive educational attitude (to put it mildly). This is unreasonable.

Good and various cases can be made that contemporary Western culture is skewed oppressively by male values and preferences. Males have undeniably enjoyed more social mobility, more political rights, and greater compensation for their work than females have. In the twentieth century, gender injustice has been resented and vigorously addressed by both sexes. It is obviously right to oppose gender-based unfairness, but it is a mistake to assume that boys’ schools are a contributing cause. If females have been unjustly treated over the past century, and if gender composition of schools is to blame, the principal fault must lie in the dominant type of school: the coeducational school, in which over 90 percent of American school children have been enrolled. Far from being the culprits, single-sex schools, as some feminists have begun to suggest, may be the way out of the trouble.

What is the best school setting for promoting just and humane gender attitudes? This is a serious question. How and if it is answered will depend to a large extent on the climate in which it is discussed. Generous minds are required, minds willing to consider unfamiliar evidence and assumptions. Since serious people who favor single-sex or coeducational schools are likely to be motivated by a concern for the welfare and development of children, there is no need to address the issue in punishing, acrimonious tones. It might help, actually, to cultivate a little lighthearted playfulness. Socrates did—and while it did not save his life, it lightened its passing considerably.


Is there an inherent “maleness” to boys and men? Are the distinctive biological features of males linked to deep psychological structures? If so, then maleness cannot be alienated from males without a fundamental loss of their humanity. If inherent maleness is also susceptible to development, the social structures that bear on that development—especially families and schools—should self-consciously aim to realize its fullest potential.

The American poet and mythologist Robert Bly has not only postulated an inherent deep-maleness; he also argues that its suppression has been the root cause of a current masculine malaise. Drawing on the depth psychology of Freud, Jung, and the contemporary Jungian James Hillman, Bly attempts to document the late twentieth century emergence of a new male type: the “soft man.” “ Soft man” is not for Bly an altogether pejorative term. Soft men emerged, he believes, in the 1960s in response to feminist breakthroughs. As stereotypes of both genders were held up for critical appraisal, many conventional gender-related views and practices were altered. “As men began to look at women and their concerns,” Bly writes, “some men began to see their own feminine side and to pay attention to it.” For many this was genuinely liberating: to feel free not to like football if one happened not to, to engage energetically in domestic arts, in the nurture of children. Such men, Bly claimed, found it “wonderful” to be more thoughtful and gentle, less reflexively macho. But there was also something wrong with the new condition.1

Soft men, while socially nicer and more acceptable to liberated women, are also, Bly has found, enervated and depressed: “They are life-preserving, but not exactly life-giving.“2 Forward-looking, sensitive, and intelligent as he may be, the soft man also feels rather a “wimp.” He feels he is missing something. Some turn to women to get it back, but the women, whether mothers, sisters, lovers, or friends, do not have it to give back; they did not take it in the first place. The soft man—and indeed every developing male—needs finally to look beyond women for sustenance and direction. Discovering the feminine side of the male self is indeed crucial to self-realization, but it is not the ultimate discovery. For males the ultimate discovery, or rediscovery, is the deep male. The deep male, while necessary to male self-realization, may be a frightening, forbidding presence. He is not, Bly says, “a benign Asian guru” or “a kind young man named Jesus.“3

The modern male’s need to be reconciled with his lost deep-maleness is illuminated, Bly suggests, by the Grimm folk tale “Iron John.” To summarize it briefly: A kingdom is troubled by the disappearance of hunters who enter a remote area of the royal forest. A stranger passing through learns of the problem and volunteers to help. When he enters the dangerous region, a great hand arises from out of a pond and pulls the stranger’s dog down to the depths. The stranger then returns to the castle for help. With a number of volunteers, he drains the pond, bucketful by bucketful. At the bottom lies a reddish, rust-colored giant, covered with hair from head to toe. The giant, Iron John, is captured and carried back to the castle where he is displayed in a cage. One day soon after, the king’s young son is playing nearby with his treasured golden ball. When the ball rolls within Iron John’s grasp, he grabs it. To get the ball back, the boy is told he will have to hand over the key to the cage. Since the key lies under the mother’s pillow, a deception is required of the boy. He secures the key while his parents are away and releases Iron John, but as the giant heads off to the forest, the boy calls after him that his parents will be very angry when they realize what has happened. The giant agrees, and the two head off into the wilderness together, presumably forever.

The features of Iron John—hairiness, wetness, redness—are associated with primitive male sexuality; they are not easily acceptable, not nice. The pond, Bly suggests, is the subconscious mind, and emptying it bucket-by-bucket represents a patient, disciplined attempt to discover what lies “at the bottom.” The golden ball represents the boy’s unity of spirit, positive energy, destiny. The only way to retrieve the boy’s imperiled wholeness and destiny is to come to terms with a previously submerged, monstrous reality, and to do this, to make this connection, the liberating key must be stolen from the mother. Indeed, the boy must break with both parents and reconcile himself with the primitive if he is going to make his own way.

What the soft contemporary man is missing, then, is his golden ball. A red, hairy primitive has it. Moreover, this primitive is his own deepest self, deeper than his haphazard childhood identifications, deeper than the expectations the culture has imposed, deeper even than his awareness of an unexpected feminine dimension. To be a man, the boy—each boy—has got to do something very risky and very hard, and he must do it himself. In this regard the “Iron John” tale is consonant with other folk tales and male coming-of-age rituals throughout history and all over the world.

Bly believes the modern male’s alienation from his deep-maleness is a consequence of industrialism, which has tended to remove fathers from their sons’ company and thus to mystify a man’s manner and work. With fathers only erratically present, their work is hard to imagine and harder still to like; sons have a difficult time conceiving their true manhood. The mother-acceptable view of manhood, the “nice” view, does not somehow ring true. Even in—perhaps especially in—the nicest households, the primitive stirs. “In the U.S. there are so many big-muscled high school boys hulking around the kitchen rudely, and I think in a way they’re trying to make themselves less attractive to their mothers.“4

Bly does not advocate male regression to the primitive, nor would he call for a preindustrial economy. The reflexively macho man is as alienated as the soft man, only without the soft man’s genuine appreciation of women and of the feminine dimension of himself. Bly favors a reconciliation with the primitive, not necessarily a blind surrender to its urges. If males are strong, if they are passionate questers, if they raise their voices sometimes, so be it. This does not mean they must be oppressive and cruel. We must also, he suggests, reverse the tendency to emasculate the male type in the popular culture. From the Dagwood cartoons of the twenties through the television sitcoms of Norman Lear, men, and fathers especially, have tended to be portrayed as hapless buffoons or as benign eunuchs. Persistent denial of authentic masculinity is apt to produce eerie compensations—Rambo and his kind?

“In The Odyssey,” Bly points out, “Hermes instructs Odysseus, when he is approaching a kind of matriarchal figure, that he is to lift or show Circe his sword. It is difficult for many of the younger males to distinguish between showing the sword and hurting someone.5 Contemporary culture has by no means made it easy to draw such distinctions. The justifiable feminine imperative “Do not abuse me!” is too easily understood as “Do not be strong enough to abuse me!” Boys and men need to be reassured that the capacity to be forceful and the inclination to be destructive are not the same.

Other voices in depth psychology, particularly those in the field of object relations theory, may help to explain more fully the male’s need to discover his deep-maleness. In her new study Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory, Nancy Chodorow considers the developmental implications of the fact that women are the primary nurturers of both male and female infants. Unlike infant girls, infant boys must adapt psychologically to the gender difference between themselves and their primary love-object. The mother’s femininity is a daunting “otherness”; depending on and ultimately turning away from this otherness will cause a special quality of unease in the infant male psyche. Seen this way, the early (pre-Oedipal) male is launched “negatively” into subsequent development.6

This kind of feminist revision of Freudian child development casts mother-son relationships (also mother-daughter relationships) into greater prominence than is allowed by traditional psychoanalysis, with its father-driven Oedipal complex. Both the traditional view and the view offered by Chodorow, however, confirm a deep psychological motivation for males to set out on a distinctive developmental path. According to Freud, following that path entails the need to exceed, to triumph over, the father.7 In imagination and dream this can be accomplished through satisfying symbolic victories over fathers and other giants—that is, axing down a beanstalk bearing a thundering patriarch or, perhaps, as in oracle-beguiled Oedipus’s case, simply bludgeoning one’s father to death in a fracas on the open road. In reality, Freud hypothesized, boys overcome the mortal anxiety they feel about their competitor-fathers by identifying with them: an act of psychic “cannibalism.” If Chodorow is correct, male children will have begun their journey of individuation before the onset of their Oedipal challenges. In fact, the latter may be a mere extension of an earlier, deeper need to swim free of the feminine “other” and to become a self. The key to self-realization may lie under the mother’s pillow, as the tale of “Iron John” suggests.

It is probably not an overgeneralization to state that, throughout the history of civilization up until the First World War, the answer to the question of whether there is an inherent maleness to boys and men would have been laughably obvious. Are males male? Is the sky blue? What has raised such questions? Such doubts?

The popular understanding of gender—of both masculinity and femininity—has been traditionally determined by institutions organized by gender: priesthoods, armies, clubs, sororities, scout troops, teams, and, notably, schools. Gender-based organizations, whether the National Organization for Women or Eton College, not only risk stating what masculinity or femininity is, but also what a male or female should be. Neither gender has a successful record of making acceptable definitions of the other. There is some concern, however, that the soft man drawn by Bly may be a problematic consequence of males trying to define themselves in conformity to feminist prescriptions. A good, or at least an acceptable, man is thus one who does not attempt date rape; who does not assume that his preferences, activities, and employment are preeminent considerations when making mutual plans; who does not perpetrate gender stereotypes; who would not assume the male always pays the check or that women would not care for boxing, and so forth. No one, of either gender, should be defined negatively.

For better or worse, but probably forever, each gender tends to define its own nature and its aspirations. When the creation and perpetration of those definitions break down, when there is no social structure to affirm them and to pass them on, there is trouble. Gender definition and expectations have traditionally been a responsibility of schools, but schools have increasingly declined to set specific, positive expectations for masculine and feminine conduct. Schools typically define and prescribe good studenthood, good citizenship, but this does not solve a deeper developmental problem. Each student, each citizen, is a boy or a girl. There is that dimension of selfhood to be realized as well, and only a few schools these days are either structured or inclined to address the task. Does it matter?

For nearly all of Western history boys were educated and trained apart from girls. That structural fact, apart from reflecting a number of social assumptions that no longer prevail, was also accompanied by fairly clear conceptions of what a boy should be and do. Some of those conceptions are durably appealing. In the late twentieth century, by contrast, one would be hard-pressed to identify—except in certain boys’ schools and other all-male organizations—a clear conception of male adequacy.

Questing, striving, leading, serving, adhering to ideals despite temptations not to—these values have rested at the heart of boys’ schools and of boys’ stories from the earliest recorded history. Summing up one’s wit and wiles and strength in the face of great danger or great adventure is a theme running from Hebrew Scripture through the great Victorian schoolboy sagas such as Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

Boys schooled together have no trouble seeing the developmental point of teenage David facing the Philistine champion, Goliath. David’s story is developmentally important to boys, in fact, exhilarating. It is not unlike Telemachus’s story, or even the story of his father, Odysseus. Not all the questing of boy-heroes in the Western tradition is martial or regal. The individuating quests of Jesus and St. Francis are marked by the force and depth of their spirituality. In Peter Abelard’s case the quest was intellectual. The Christian chivalry of the Arthurian stories prescribed highly specific expectations for boys and men, expectations that again, despite entailing hardships, personal restraint, and exposure to mortal danger, have for centuries been stirringly attractive to boys. Moreover, the hypermasculinity of the chivalric code was accompanied by an extraordinary veneration of women. Indeed, the women of the Arthurian cycle are more than objects of love and loyalty; they are also intelligent, resourceful, powerful, often formidable adversaries.

The masculine ideal in the West has rarely—and then at its peril—isolated itself from feminine influence. The very object of the masculine quest, as in Romeo’s case, may be the love of a girl or woman. But Romeo, like Abelard and Dante before him, arises out of a culture of males to meet the exquisite otherness of his love. Juliet is no school or neighborhood chum. The common thread in the heroic stories of the male guest is the subordination of the hero’s welfare to the object of the quest. Young David and Romeo and Robin Hood are not selfish. Even now that theme, if vividly evoked, as in Chariots of Fire (a semi-documentary film about the Olympic ambitions of two Cambridge athletes, Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams), resonates with surprising power.

It is well beyond the scope of this article to isolate the precise causes of the break or warp in the tradition of masculine heroism in the West. Undeniably, however, that tradition has been massively countered by the post- World War I emergence of the antihero. Who is the paradigm case? Is it Holden Caulfield, gentle, sensitive, physically and sexually doubtful, on the verge of nervous collapse? Is it Willie Loman’s disillusioned boys in Death of a Salesman? Is it James Dean’s baby-talking portrayal of a conflicted teenager in Rebel without a Cause? Conrad Jarrett poised on the brink of suicide in Ordinary People? Or is it the lost teenager become middle-aged, as in Jack Nicholson’s characterization of Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces?

These and legions of other lost boys compose a good part of the cultural backdrop against which boys are now expected to grow up. Whatever dark and worrying messages they collectively convey, the larger point is that they are not conveying enough. They are not conveying how to become a man. Again, very few institutions seem willing to take up this task. An exception is the boys’ school.


Boys’ schools have not disappeared. Many have not only weathered an era of coeducational conversion, they have thrived in its midst. When their scholastic and extracurricular performance is measured and compared, as Lee and Bryk measured and compared it among parochial school students, boys in boys’ schools do better than boys in coed schools—never, apparently, worse.8 Moreover, boys from boys’ schools have not as a body registered special difficulties in adapting to the coeducational conditions of university life. A boys’ school can, obviously, be poorly conceived, badly run, and resourceless. Herding boys together under the banner of school is no panacea, but schooling them within a structure designed to realize and to celebrate their distinctive developmental features has resulted in a high count of the most longstanding and most demonstrably effective schools in the world.

There is little mystery in the fact that well-conceived boys’ schools have turned out to be good for boys. From their preschool years through their late teens, boys reveal a number of gender-specific contours in their skeletal, motor, and neurological development. Boys develop language skills, the capacity for quantitative analysis, and large- and small-muscle proficiencies at a developmentally different tempo from girls. Child psychologist J. M. Tanner has demonstrated that girls’ skeletons and nervous systems are at birth more fully developed than those of boys, and the maturational gap increases somewhat through early childhood.9

Gender-based variations in the tempo and pattern of learning can be identified from the pre-kindergarten through the high school years. Primary school girls generally demonstrate reading and writing proficiency earlier than boys do; middle- and high school boys' mathematical-logical capacities accelerate more rapidly than those of girls. Girls develop line muscle coordination sooner; boys develop large motor coordination sooner. Females reach the peak of their pubertal growth spurt a year or two sooner than boys. Each gender-based physiological difference is accompanied by distinctive psychological and sociological adjustments.

If the learning styles and learning tempos of boys and girls are at variance, a homogeneous school program—whether curricular or extracurricular—will unavoidably miss either the masculine or the feminine mark, if not both. Just as school programs tailored to gender-specific learning patterns should facilitate more learning, teachers adept at teaching boys or girls might reasonably be assumed to be, by virtue of their “specialization,” more effective than those who teach (developmentally variegated) boys and girls together. As maturational differences between the sexes level off in the late teens, there are fewer theoretical advantages for educating them separately. Coed colleges would seem to make more educational sense than coed schools, although W. A. Astin’s massive 1977 study of 200,000 undergraduates in 300 colleges study suggested otherwise.10

From the onset of adolescence, there are new, emotionally vivid gender issues afoot in classroom and corridor. Adult sexual potency is reached, and its attendant urges and manifestations must be managed by the executive capacity of a very recent child. Adolescents must address this demanding and dramatic task while, simultaneously, they are asked to do more, and more difficult kinds of, schoolwork. Middle- and high school students are challenged to progress from concrete to theoretical forms of thought. Higher mathematics is introduced. Students are asked to see and to use language less literally, more symbolically. The performance expectations of athletes and artists and performers are dramatically elevated. Schoolwork and extracurricular performance are increasingly graded and evaluated, and the evaluations are increasingly consequential.

For deep biological reasons, schooling pubescent boys and girls together produces inevitable distractions. Only some of the erotic distraction experienced by boys and girls in school is “active” and visible: flirting, erotic looking, dressing, grooming, posturing for romantic effect. A substantial if not dominant part of the diverted energy goes into suppressing sexual interests and urges. The flattest adolescent appearances are likely to express intense arousal neutralized by equally intense suppression; apparent imperviousness to nubile gender-opposites comes at some cost. Expressed or suppressed, however, sexual distraction is an undeniable impediment to focused activity, to learning and development. This is why Astin attributed the positive effects of single-sex colleges to “restricted heterosexual activity” and why Valery Lee and Anthony Bryk’s 1986 study of coed and single-sex parochial schools invited a reconsideration of learning environments where adolescent boys’ and girls’ “social and academic concerns are separated.“11 Or, as a colleague of mine put it recently, “I like boys’ schools because the inter-sexual posturing that interferes with my work goes on somewhere else.” That it does go on somewhere else is, of course, crucial to healthy adolescent development, but, despite the predominance of coeducational schools, there seems to be no demonstrable evidence that the experience of boys and girls together during school hours contributes positively either to cross-gender socialization or to learning.

Here the intuitive advocate of coeducation may well ask, “But what about the child who simply prefers going to school with the opposite sex?” There is robustness, an agreeable weight to this objection, particularly if rounded off with “It’s a coed world after all.” It is indeed a coed world—but it is not a unisexual world. The questions of the adolescent’s own preference for coeducation deserves to be taken seriously. It will be an adolescent preference, incidentally, not a childhood preference generally. Preadolescent children, given the chance and mobility to do so, exhibit a powerful tendency to seek out their own gender for mutual or group activity—despite their placement in both-gender settings from preschool years onward. Indeed, possibly the most underexplored feature in the sociology of education is the persistence of same-sex structures within coed schools. There is, it might be demonstrated, a shadowy boys’ school and girls’ school underlying every coed school. Certain members of each make heady forays into the other, and from the rest there is a good deal of gawking, speculating, and general preoccupation with those of the opposite sex who are most proximate.

To return to adolescent preferences: What sort of school program would adolescents, as a body and unguided, prefer? Would they prefer more rigorous and more required courses or fewer? More homework or less? A longer or shorter school day, school year? Required or optional commitments? Classroom exposure to classical culture or to pop culture? Would adolescents prefer to sit through a performance of As You Like It or a screening of Risky Business? Systematically explore the historical record or discuss the events of the day? Read Moby Dick or Jaws? If most would opt for the latter alternatives over the former, is there a robustness, an agreeable weight to these preferences? It is hard to see why an adolescent preference for coeducation should be regarded as any more substantial than other, highly arguable youthful inclinations.

In the fall of 1989, a delightful bit of anthropological research was carried out by Julia Kennedy, a senior at the Buckingham, Browne and Nichols School, a coed independent school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On special assignment from her school newspaper, Kennedy donned her brother’s clothes, a friend’s spectacles, and, in collusion with the editor of the student paper of Boston’s Roxbury Latin School, set out to document the ethos of boys’ school life from her disguised feminine perspective. Announced to the school as a visiting student journalist, “Justin” Kennedy proceeded through a day of exclusively male camaraderie and a scholastic program that included courses in English, contemporary American history, calculus, art, and chemistry. The day was understandably harrowing for her at times; she initiated, but could not bring herself to complete, a mission to the men’s room. She carried with her certain expectations from her own well-established coed college preparatory school, and she reported as many similarities as differences to it in the all-boys setting. The Roxbury Latin School, founded in 1645 by the British divine John Eliot, is an academically rigorous, highly regarded school, and Kennedy knew it. But what about its boy-ness? The following is excerpted from her published account of her day.

The bell rang after about twenty minutes, and we headed for English. During class, the all-male atmosphere became apparent. Here, although the class discussion was quite intelligent, the students seemed more relaxed than at B.B.&N., and ready to joke around.

While analyzing Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey,” [the teacher] inquired, “Does he like his sister?” “I like his sister!” [a student] boasted. Mr. Randall laughed again, shook his head, and remarked, “This is a steamy little class here.” Nobody looked at me to see if I was offended. Nobody expected me to be.12

While duly impressed, Kennedy was on balance less interested in the caliber of the boys’ academic performance than in the behaviors that might bear on their relations with girls. A day in the midst of these boys’ school boys seemed to alleviate her concerns that they might be missing something essential in gender-relations:

I dreaded unbearably crude jokes in class, guys slapping my rear in camaraderie, or else myself nearly getting into a fist fight by the end of the day. However, when none of these horrors happened, I wasn’t too surprised.

[Boys] may spend eight hours each day with hardly a female in sight, but this doesn’t mean they don’t know how to treat girls. In fact, all-boys’ schools never [!] produce boys who behave differently from boys with a coed school education.

They just make for a very interesting day.13

An interesting day, and then some. Speaking personally, I too can recall my sudden immersion into boys’ school life. While, unlike Julia Kennedy, I entered the school (Cleveland’s University School) as a male and as a new member of the faculty, the composition and tone of the school made a vivid contrast to the coeducational high school and college I had attended. I had chosen the school because I needed the job, not for its all-boy composition. I had liked my earlier visits, and was impressed by the directed liveliness in the classes I observed. What I had admired, I thought, was the vigorous, down-to-business tone of the school, which I attributed to the quality of the students enrolled and to an especially effective faculty. I was, if anything, unfavorably disposed to the idea of an all-male student body. Again, boys’ schools had played no part in my own (far from exemplary) education, and I wondered whether boys without girls might not evolve into forms of barbarism unfamiliar to me. As it happened, my prejudices were unfounded. I was not unpleasantly surprised by the boys’ approach to school life, but I was surprised. In each class, at each baseball practice, at the luncheon table, but most vividly in the continuous stream of light and serious conversation with them in the hallway, after class, or on the way to and from the, fields, I was aware of something altogether new to me. There was an unaffected directness, an authenticity I had not experienced before in a school-and that I had not thought possible between students and their teachers. Attempting to describe it to my wife, I used the term “edge.” There was a special edge to boys’ school life, a positive edge.

Twenty-two years have passed since I registered those initial impressions. I have now dwelled professionally in a boys’ school, the same one, so long and so agreeably that I find it hard to imagine deliberately deciding to school children otherwise. I find it continually, renewably inspiring that my colleagues and the boys they teach set such staggeringly high goals for their intellectual, athletic, and artistic performance. The striving after these creates the edge I sensed years ago. Until I observed it in a boys’ school, I never saw adolescents so self-directed or so resourceful. Life has never been easy in my school. Challenges are real, consequences are sometimes hard. Even gifted boys are unlikely to succeed without tenacity and courage. It is possible to fail. Despite, and in some respects because of, the fact that their school life poses real challenges, the boys express more straightforward support and affection for one another than I had ever thought possible among schoolchildren.

Whatever I expected from the teaching life in my twenties, I do not think it included a sustained infusion of inspiration and hope, but that is what happened. That is what the edge has produced. I am grateful, but no longer surprised, that I learned this lesson in a boys’ school. It is a durable lesson.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 92 Number 3, 1991, p. 433-444
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 301, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 6:07:53 PM

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  • Richard Hawley
    University School, Chagrin Falls, Ohio

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